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The Dismal Science

The Dismal Science

How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

Stephen A. Marglin

ISBN 9780674047228

Publication date: 05/10/2010

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Economists celebrate the market as a device for regulating human interaction without acknowledging that their enthusiasm depends on a set of half-truths: that individuals are autonomous, self-interested, and rational calculators with unlimited wants and that the only community that matters is the nation-state. However, as Stephen A. Marglin argues, market relationships erode community. In the past, for example, when a farm family experienced a setback—say the barn burned down—neighbors pitched in. Now a farmer whose barn burns down turns, not to his neighbors, but to his insurance company. Insurance may be a more efficient way to organize resources than a community barn raising, but the deep social and human ties that are constitutive of community are weakened by the shift from reciprocity to market relations.

Marglin dissects the ways in which the foundational assumptions of economics justify a world in which individuals are isolated from one another and social connections are impoverished as people define themselves in terms of how much they can afford to consume. Over the last four centuries, this economic ideology has become the dominant ideology in much of the world. Marglin presents an account of how this happened and an argument for righting the imbalance in our lives that this ideology has fostered.


  • Stephen Marglin makes a powerful and convincing argument for how thinking like an economist undermines community. Suddenly, the choices of those who reject global capitalism seem far more reasonable, because the globalization of capital brings with it the economistic thinking that destroys local values, forcing us to choose between material prosperity and spiritual health. Yet this tension is made invisible by a pseudo-universal ideology about human nature. Marglin thus provides a persuasive foundation for the Politics of Meaning.



  • Stephen A. Marglin is the Walter Barker Professor of Economics at Harvard University. His books include The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community and Growth, Distribution, and Prices. He is a past Guggenheim Fellow and member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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